On Thursday, Ben Zobrist started at shortstop for the Rays. It was his first game at shortstop since 2009. Is that something that we could see the Rays do quite often moving forward?
Defensive versatility is always an asset. Specifically for the Rays, it helps them get their best hitters onto the field. On Thursday for the Rays, putting Zobrist at shortstop allowed the Rays to have an outfield of Sam Fuld, B.J. Upton, and Matt Joyce while keeping both Jeff Keppinger and Ryan Roberts in the lineup. Evan Longoria was at designated hitter. Taking out Zobrist gave the Rays to turn shortstop from a position of offensive weakness to a strength and get a hot offensive player in Sam Fuld into the lineup. Offensively, putting Zobrist at shortstop made perfect sense. But what about defensively? Zobrist has proven to be an excellent defensive right fielder and second baseman. Note that those two positions aren’t considered premium positions like shortstop. Zobrist was moved off of shortstop because he was never great defensively.
Watching Zobrist, we know that he stands out for his outstanding arm that is a perfect fit for right field. He moves well laterally but is by no means a burner, and his infield actions aren’t exactly silky smooth but he makes up for that the vast majority of the time with his arm. That doesn’t sound like a shortstop at all. However, he can’t be much worse than Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez, both natural second basemen, have been this season. But things get much more complicated when you consider other positions. Is a Zobrist-Jeff Keppinger double play combo featuring two average to below-average defenders better than say Johnson-Zobrist with Zobrist a plus defender at second base? Do you want to have two of Keppinger, Ryan Roberts, Rodriguez, and Johnson playing second and third base every day? What about when Evan Longoria is ready to play third base? There are quite a few questions, but it seems to make sense to have Zobrist see time at shortstop at least occasionally as long as he’s halfway-decent defensively. Depending on the hot hands among the role players, Zobrist will see time at second base, right field, and shortstop. Especially late in games, Zobrist could move to shortstop relatively often when, for example, Sam Fuld pinch-hits for Elliot Johnson. Getting Zobrist back in the swing of things defensively at shortstop gives the Rays maximum flexibility to get their best bats in the lineup. And no matter how things work out defensively, the Rays have nothing to lose with this experiment.